Michael Gove learns no obvious lessons on Boston fact-finding trip

Oct 20, 2013 by

On a visit to Massachusetts, Michael Gove seeks answers. How can failing schools be turned around? How should teachers be paid and trained? And what is that creature swimming in the rock pool?

“Is it a spider?” asks the six-year-old boy at Orchard Gardens elementary school in Boston, unfazed by Britain’s secretary of state for education crouching by his desk in the middle of reading tuition.

No, his teacher replies, the creature in the illustration isn’t a spider. “A lobster?” wonders a little girl. The teacher suggests they look at the text and pronounce the word. “Cr-a-b,” the pupils respond in best synthetic phonics style, carefully breaking the word down into sounds, and everyone smiles. Gove soon scuttles away.

In a four-day visit to Boston to investigate its school system, involving a string of meetings with teachers, politicians, administrators and academics, that was the most clear-cut answer Gove received.

But on the bigger questions he was looking to answer, the responses were mixed or contradictory. Should teachers’ pay be based on performance? Yes and no. Who should be recruited to teach? The best, or anyone who wants to do it. What did parents want? Sometimes change, sometimes status quo.

Gove’s first stop was a meeting with the state’s Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, a political ally of President Barack Obama. Gove’s detailed questioning about Massachusetts schools – which Patrick passed on to his officials – left the suspicion that the British minister was better informed on the details of Massachusetts education reform than the state’s governor.

What were the limits on school autonomy? “I don’t know,” said Patrick thoughtfully. Who were the forces for change and innovation? “I fall into both camps,” said Patrick. “I think it is so important to listen to teachers in the classroom.” “Mmm,” said Gove, politely.

At every school he visited, Gove peppered everyone within earshot with these questions and many more, as well as pitching in with an extempore history lesson at Orchard Gardens with a group of 10-year-olds.

“What do you guys know about England? Have you heard of the Queen?” Gove asked the children. “Which queen?” replied one, possibly taking her cue from the governor.

Gove asked if they had heard of One Direction – and scored a hit. That led him to mention Taylor Swift’s torch song I Knew You Were Trouble, aimed at her former beau Harry Styles. “The reason why the song is so successful is it shows that you should never have a boyfriend from England – they’ll break your heart,” said Gove, to blank looks from the 10-year-olds.

Michael O’Neill, chair of the Boston school committee, steps in: “You know how you have a best friend? Well, America has a best friend, and it is England.” A best friend that will break your heart.

Orchard Gardens – a more accurate name would be Concrete Vista – is exactly the sort of institution that Gove’s policy of converting failing schools into academies tries to replicate. “This is a very tough, impoverished neighbourhood,” Matt Malone, Massachusetts’ secretary of education, told Gove and his party, which includes special adviser Henry de Zoete and private secretary Elizabeth Kelly, plus Foreign Office staff.

Five years ago the school was “crazy and unsafe”, said principal Andrew Bott, who was tasked with turning it around.

Gove asked Bott how he swiftly reformed the school. One move was an extended school day, adding three hours of compulsory after-school programmes for older students.

One of the boldest things Bott did was cut spending on security and funnel the funds into arts. The results were evident in the “hip-hop ballet” class in a new dance studio, and a mural of a meteor containing a dove about to hit a forest struck by lightning, suggesting that somewhere a heavy metal band is missing an album cover.A trip to Harvard’s centre for education policy research and a meeting with expert Thomas Kane brings more mixed messages. Here Gove’s interest is in teacher training, and while Kane says there is “no link between teacher’s paper credentials and performance in the classroom.” He also cites Harvard research that pupil surveys are an accurate measure of teacher quality. Gove looks intrigued. But using pupils to evaluate their teachers “has an emotional salience,” Kane politely suggests. Translation: everyone hates it.

Gove was also intrigued by a school named Up, short for Unlocking Potential, part of a chain of charter schools – the closest US equivalent of free schools – now housed in a magnificent FDR-era former state-funded school.

Up is a very different vision. Its hallways are festooned not with student art, but with printed banners exhorting self-improvement, done in a sassy corporate style as if Starbucks had taken over a school.

Sitting in on an English class – the students studying the sci-fi novel Enders Game, appropriately given its dystopian theme of preparing the youth of tomorrow for toil – is an uncomfortable experience. The teacher barks out directions and precise timings for tasks, while a sentence from the novel is deconstructed using a “microscope”.

The whole effect is mechanical, including a routine where teacher and pupils click their fingers if they agree with a statement. It sounds like a room full of beatnik robots.

The reason for the prescriptive teaching – which an Ofsted inspector would mark down as lacking encouragement for initiative – is said to be discipline, and a system that can be easily copied. Like Starbucks. Yet, Gove later said, this was the class that impressed him most.

Dinners and meetings and more questions follow, until the highlight of the visit: Gove’s keynote dinner address at a summit on reform, organised by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a charity founded by former Florida governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

Based on the audience response in the cavernous Sheraton ballroom, Gove’s speech – delivered without notes or preparation – is a huge hit, a highlight being his comparison of exam grade inflation to phony Soviet Union economic statistics. “In Russia, thousands more get GCSEs,” he said in a Russian accent, “surely now we are education powerhouse?”

Jeb Bush reportedly leaned over and asked: “So this guy is a Russian scholar as well?” The consensus was that Bush was joking. Probably.

Michael Gove learns no obvious lessons on Boston fact-finding trip | Politics | The Guardian.

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